Presbyterians hold that the organization of the church is by divine law; and thus, believe that there is a mandatory plan for church government. In its most mature form, the church will be "furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances." That is, in a fully organized setting, a congregation will possess a solid group of church officers (deacons, ruling elders, ministers of the word); it will be linked to a graded system of church courts (sessions, presbyteries, and synods), where justice is truly administered and applicants for the ministry are seriously tried as to their qualifications for office; and the sacraments will be rightly administered. In our own day, however, these general principles have been misconstrued by men who confound the principles of polity which exist where a church is in a settled state, with those which apply to a church in an irregular or forming condition.
Presbyterian authors from previous generations understood the important distinction between the polity which exists in a fully-organized church, and those principles which apply to churches in irregular circumstances. For example, R. J. Breckinridge was a 19th century American proponent of jure divino Presbyterianism. Yet, even a stickler for detail like Breckinridge kept his remarks in the proper context. In a memorable speech on Presbyterian Government, he paused momentarily to qualify his remarks, reflecting that there was a difference between the ordinary exercise of church power, and that power which "might be justified in a forming or unsettled church state."
This essay will explore principles which apply to church polity in irregular circumstances, or in cases where a congregation may not be fully organized. We shall quote freely from established Presbyterian authors, in order to demonstrate that Presbyterian principles demand certain organizational adjustments for churches in extraordinary circumstances.
Elsewhere, I have pointed out some of the ordinary principles of biblical church government. I shall not here retrace the scriptural evidence to establish the warrant for church officers, church courts, etc. Let it suffice to say we still hold that these principles form the pattern to which each church should eventually conform. Nevertheless, while all elements of scriptural church government are essential for the well-being of the Church, not all of these elements are necessary for the being of the Church. That is, a church which is in a forming or irregular condition may lack some features of mature Presbyterian polity, while still possessing the marks of a true church. With these considerations in mind, I now proceed to some additional aspects of scriptural polity.
In the Old Testament, God established Jerusalem as the center of his ordinances of public worship and ecclesiastical government. Therefore, any attempt to set up a rival center of worship, as Jeroboam did, was patently schismatic (1 Kings 12). On the other hand, during times of national apostasy, it was incumbent upon faithful Israelites to keep themselves separate from the prevailing corruptions of the times (1 Kings 19:18; Heb. 11:38).
Moreover, the Old Testament pattern of worship was typical in nature; and it was destined to find its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. After the Lord Jesus completed his redemptive work, a fundamental change occurred: "Believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him" (John 4:21, 23).
According to Christ, the institutions of worship and church government are not tied to a central location, but must be discerned by the preeminent quality of fidelity to God "in spirit and truth." All ecclesiastical institutions and practices including church government must be subordinate to this primary concern, if they are to be legitimately exercised.
In a related vein, James Bannerman says, "The Church was established for the sake of the truth, and not truth for the sake of the Church." Or, to apply the principle a little differently: the institutions of church government exist for the sake of the truth, and not truth for the sake of the church polity. Indeed, the Church is the "pillar and ground of the truth," the house of the living God (1 Tim. 3:15).
During the apostolic era, the gospel was widely preached, with the result that Christian congregations were formed throughout the Roman empire. The apostle Paul customarily preached first in the Jewish synagogues (Acts 13:4-5; 13:14-48; 14:1-4; 17:1-4). The majority of the Jews rejected the truth, while "some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few" (Acts 17:4; cf. 13:42-48). When the apostles thereby organized Christian congregations, they de facto countenanced secession from the existing churches (the synagogues which failed to embrace the truth of the gospel; cf. Acts 19:9).
In other cases, churches were born amidst less formal proceedings. Some scholars believe that the church at Rome was formed by Christians who returned to Rome after being converted at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10), or who came to the faith by some other means, prior to any apostolic visitation to Rome itself.
The church at Philippi began out of a conversation at the river side, where a group of women (including Lydia) met for prayer. The Lord opened Lydia's heart, "that she attended unto the things which were spoken" by Paul; and she was baptized, with her household, shortly thereafter (Acts 16:14-15). When the Philippian jailer was converted, he and his household were baptized that same night, in his home (16:32-33).
This is not to infer that the sacraments were privately administered; for there were many persons present on these occasions. Rather, these cases demonstrate that a proper administration of the sacraments may be accomplished, within the setting of a home meeting, provided there are witnesses present to impart a public character to the meeting. Ordinarily, we would expect to find the sacraments administered during the public worship of a duly organized congregation (1 Cor. 11). But there are extraordinary occasions, such as when a congregation is in an unsettled or forming condition, that the sacraments may be lawfully administered as a public ordinance, by an itinerant minister of the word.
The case of Cornelius provides another example of how the sacraments were administered without full ecclesiastical organization (Acts 10:47-48). It was not a private administration of the sacraments; but neither was there an existing congregation present, complete with local church officers, a session, and prior presbyterial connections.
It should be remembered that the preeminent features of Presbyterian government are drawn from the apostolic examples provided in the book of Acts. If these apostolic examples give us a warrant for the normal pattern of church polity, then they likewise give us a warrant for peculiar principles pertaining to churches in a forming or unsettled state.
We turn now to see how these extraordinary principles of ecclesiastical government have been applied during one of the most extraordinary times in church history: the Protestant Reformation. Particular attention will be given to the Scottish Reformation. This choice is deliberate: the Scottish Reformation was, perhaps, the most thorough in all the nations in Europe; and the Scottish Church adopted a form of church government based upon the purest model of Presbyterianism. Thus, if Presbyterian Scotland found it acceptable yea, necessary to recognize special principles of polity for a church in a forming or irregular condition, then our case becomes stronger.
Our first concern is about secession from an existing ecclesiastical assembly. All true Presbyterians yearn for unity in the Church. And they wish to see this unity take visible expression in the institutions of church government. Still, outward institutional unity means little, if there is not an underlying commitment to the truth which forms the only basis for genuine biblical unity.
Recognizing a great regard for unity, we must, nevertheless, acknowledge that there are occasions when separation from evil becomes a necessary duty for those who follow the divine mandate: "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord" (2 Cor. 6:17). Whenever someone considers severing his church connections, great care must be exercised to insure that he is not guilty of schism. Still, we should avoid the knee-jerk assumption that the seceding party is automatically guilty of being schismatic :
Schism and separation are not convertible terms, nor are the things signified by them necessarily of the same kind. Schism is always evil; separation may be either good or evil, according to the circumstances.
. . . It is not schism to refuse submission to human constitutions (though they may be called churches, and may have religion some way for their object), nor to refuse conformity to such terms as men may be pleased to impose without warrant from the Word of God whether these constitu tions and terms proceed from the lust of power, or from the pride of wisdom, and whether they are intended to forward the policy of statesmen, to feed the ambition of churchmen, or to flatter the humors of the populace.
That churches, once purified and faithful, may degenerate so far, and fall into such a state as will warrant separation from them, is evident from the injunctions and examples of Scripture, and from facts compared with the nature and ends of religious fellowship. Nor can this be denied by any consistent Protestant. To "cleave to the Lord," to cultivate fellowship with him in the way he has prescribed [Cf. Deut. 4:4; Josh. 23:8; Acts 11:23], and to "follow him whithersoever he goeth" [Cf. Matt. 8:19], constitute the primary object to be kept in view by Christians: to this, fellowship with men is secondary and subordinate; and we are bound to forego and relinquish the latter, whenever it is found incompatible with the former. We are exhorted to "follow peace with all men," not absolutely, but so far only as it is consistent with "holiness," and may be lawfully practicable [Heb. 12:14]. No particular church has any promise securing her continuance in the faith and purity of communion; and, consequently, none can have right to claim a perpetual and inviolable union with her, or to denounce persons schismatics simply on the ground of their withdrawing from her pale and declining her authority.
During the Protestant Reformation, these principles were understood and widely acted upon. In some places, after the Protestant faith was openly adopted on a national scale, the local parochial congregations were reformed; and thus entire churches effectively seceded from Papal jurisdiction to form new connections. But national reformation did not occur overnight; and in many places it did not occur at all. Throughout Europe, Protestant families left their local parochial Romish assemblies, in order to begin worshipping with other adherents of the Reformed faith. Sometimes their meetingswere secret, held late at night, in private homes. At other times, their meetings were convened in the open-air, in some less conspicuous place away from town. Students of history do not dispute the facts; and these facts clearly demonstrate that even persons of Reformed and Presbyterian principles must be organized in a peculiar manner during difficult times and in irregular circumstances.
In 1546, during the dawning era of the Scottish Reformation, a group of Protestants converged upon the castle at St. Andrews. After the execution of Cardinal Beaton, St. Andrews became of temporary haven for Protestant refugees.
At this time, John Knox was already identified as a dissident, and he had grown weary of moving continually, in order to escape persecution. He resolved to leave Scotland, and go to the Continent, in order to pursue further studies in the Protestant schools of Europe. But the Head of the Church had other plans for him. Knox was persuaded by some of the Scottish gentry to go with them to St. Andrews, where he served as a tutor to the noblemen's children.
Among the instructions provided for his students, Knox publicly catechized his pupils, and gave a series of lectures on the gospel of John. The lectures were delivered in a chapel, and were attended by other inhabitants of the castle. These instructions helped to demonstrate Knox's teaching abilities.
At the same time, the local Protestant preacher, John Rough, encountered strong rhetorical opposition from papal adversaries. Knox assisted Rough in formulating responses to these assailants. These efforts strengthened the impressions that Knox was gifted for service to the Church.
Consequently, Rough entreated Knox to assume the role of a public preacher. Knox refused upon the grounds that he did not have a lawful calling to that vocation. After this initial plea, Rough conferred privately with several of the Protestant leaders. They concluded that they should issue Knox a public call to the ministry, within the Protestant congregation at St. Andrews. Their decision was unknown to Knox, until it was later announced to him in the presence of the church.
On the appointed day, Rough ascended the pulpit and preached a sermon on the election of ministers. He noted the danger for any man to refuse to serve the church, when the congregation perceived him to be gifted by God for the task. After finishing his message, Rough turned to Knox, and adjured him, "In the name of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the name of all that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you that you refuse not this holy vocation; but, as you tender the glory of God, the increase of Christ's kingdom, the edification of your brethren, and the comfort of me, whom you understand well enough to be oppressed by the multitude of labors, that you take the public office and charge of preaching, even as you look to avoid God's heavy displeasure, and desire that he shall multiply his grace unto you."
Rough then turned to the congregation and asked them to confirm their approval of the call. They gave hearty assent to the proposal.
Visibly struck by the weight of this charge, Knox burst into tears, and fled to his room. With somber countenance, he spent several days pondering the meaning of this call. Knox obeyed this call of his brethren as the call of the Lord, and soon became a powerful instrument in the cause of Christ.
Let us pause for a moment, however, to reflect upon the irregular nature of this call to the ministry. At this time, the congregation was aligned with no presbytery for indeed, none existed in Scotland, apart from the corrupt conventions of Romish priests. Further, it does not appear that the congregation at St. Andrews even had what we would deem a regular session nor any ruling elders for that matter. They merely had a single preacher, who was ministering to a loosely-formed congregation of refugees. Yet, the call was issued in the name of God, on the strength of the voice of this church, which perceived in Knox the gifts requisite for the ministry. Extraordinary indeed!
Shortly after Knox accepted this call, he preached a sermon, in which he explained why the Romish church is the Babylonian harlot, and the Pope is Antichrist. Knox and Rough also engaged in a public debate with the local Papists, in which Knox again exposed the corrupt worship of the Papal religion, and declared the Romish church a synagogue of Satan.
In his History, the Reformer writes, "God so assisted his weak soldier [Knox], and so blessed his labors, that not only those of the castle, but also a great number of the town, openly professed, by participation of the Lord's table, in the same purity that now it is ministered in the churches of Scotland, with that same doctrine, that he had taught unto them." In other words, Knox also administered the sacraments within this irregular congregation.
All of these events occurred before the Reformation really took root in Scotland. In 1547, the French fleet forced the surrender of St. Andrews. The congregation was thus disrupted, many being deported; Knox was thrown into the French galleys for 19 months; Rough later died a martyr in England under the reign of Bloody Mary. Knox subsequently became a central figure in the national Reformation of Scotland; but that did not transpire for over a decade, after Knox returned to take up permanent residence in his homeland (in 1559). In the meantime, Scottish Protestants remained in an irregular state of ecclesiastical polity.
In the intervening years, Knox ministered in England, and then travelled on the Continent. While living on the Continent, Knox maintained correspondence with those among whom he had previously ministered in Scotland and England. He encouraged them to remain separate from the corrupt Roman Catholic assemblies, and also to avoid Anabaptists. Godly separation was a key theme during this interim period, when the Scots were unable to enjoy the privileges of ordinary ecclesiastical institutions.
Early in 1556, Knox was able to pay a visit to Scotland. "He was conducted by Lockhart of Bar, Campbell of Kineancleugh, to Kyle, the ancient receptacle of the Scottish Lollards, where there were a number of adherents to the reformed doctrine. He preached in the houses of Bar, Kineancleugh, Carnell, Ochiltree, and Gadgirth, and in the town of Ayr. In several of these places he also dispensed the sacrament of our Lord's Supper." Further, Alexander, fifth Earl of Glencairn "was an ardent and steady friend to the reformed religion, and had carefully instructed his family in its principles. In his house, Knox dispensed the sacrament of the supper; the earl himself, his countess, and two of their sons, with a number of their friends and acquaintance, participating of that sacred feast." "Returning to Edinburgh, Knox paid a second visit to Calder House by the way, and on this occasion he saw evident fruits of his previous labours. Many from Edinburgh and the surrounding country came to hear him, and insisted on partaking Communion after the Reformed order. As a pledge that they had finally broken with the Church of Rome, and were not merely curious hearers of the new doctrine, this was about the best reward that Knox could look for in his mission."
"Knox returned to Geneva on September 13, 1556, after spending almost a year in his homeland, encouraging and strengthening the hands of the growing body of Protestants. It would, seem, however, that although much heartened by developments, he had come to the conclusion that the time had not yet arrived for a full and complete reforma tion. Consequently when the Genevan congregation wrote him calling upon him to return and take up his work among them, he acceded to their summons."
Before leaving Scotland, however, Knox wrote A Letter of Wholesome Counsel, "in which he suggested to his fellow-believers how best they would serve the interests of their common faith till better days should come." In this remarkable letter, Knox indicates that, in such peculiar times, the primary responsibility for religious government such as it can be exercised devolves especially upon heads of households. He says:
And therefore, dear brethren, if you look for a life to come, of necessity it is that you exercise yourselves in the book of the Lord your God. Let no day slip or want some comfort received from the mouth of God. Open your ears, and he will ever speak pleasing things to your heart. Close not your eyes, but diligently let them behold what portion of substance is left to you within your Father's testament. Let your tongues learn to praise the gracious goodness of Him, whose mere mercy has called you from darkness to light, and from death to life.
Neither yet may you do this so quietly that you will admit no witness. No, brethren, you are ordained of God to rule and govern your own houses in his true fear, and according to his word. Within your houses, I say, in some cases you are bishops and kings; your wife, children, servants, and family are your bishopric and charge. Of you it shall be required how carefully and diligently you have always instructed them in God's true knowledge, how you have studied to plant virtue in them, and [to] repress vice. And therefore I say, you must make them partakers in reading, exhorting, and in making common prayers, which I would in every house were used once a day at least. But above all things, dear brethren, study to practice in life that which the Lord commands, and then be you assured that you shall never hear nor read the same without fruit. And this much for the exercises within your houses.
Knox then provides some instructions on how these Protestants should conduct meet ings for corporate worship in their extraordinary circumstances:
Considering that St. Paul calls the congregation "the body of Christ," whereof every one of us is a member, teaching us thereby that no member is of sufficiency to sustain and feed itself without the help and support of another; I think it necessary for the conference [consultation] of scriptures, assemblies of brethren be had. The order therein to be observed is expressed by St. Paul, and, therefore, I need not to use many words in that behalf; only willing, that when you convene, or come together, which I would were once a week, your beginning should be from confessing of your offenses, and invocation of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus to assist you in all your godly enterprises. And then let some place of Scripture be plainly and distinctly read, so much as shall be thought sufficient for the day or time; which ended, if any brother have exhortation, question, or doubt, let him not fear to speak and move the same, so that he do it with moderation, either to edify or be edified. And hereof I doubt not but that great profit shall shortly ensue. For, first, by hearing, reading, and conferring the scriptures in the assembly, the whole body of the scriptures of God shall become familiar; the judgments and spirits of men shall be tried, their patience and modesty shall be known; and, finally, their gifts and utterance shall appear. Multiplication of words, prolix [wordy; tedious] interpretations, and willfulness in reasoning, are to be avoided at all times, and in all places, but chiefly in the congregation, where nothing ought to be respected, except the glory of God, and comfort and edification of our brethren.
If anything occurs within the text, or else arises in reasoning, which your judgments cannot resolve, or capacities apprehend, let the same be noted and put in writing before you dismiss the congregation, that when God shall offer unto you any interpreter, your doubts being noted and known, may have the more expeditious resolution; or else that when you shall have occasion to write to such as with whom you would communicate your judgments, your letters may signify and declare your unceasing desire that you have of God and of his true religion; and they, I doubt not, according to their talents, will endeavor and will bestow their faithful labors to satisfy your godly petitions. Of myself I will speak as I think; I will more gladly spend fifteen hours in communicating my judgment with you, in explaining as God pleases to open to me any place of scripture, than half an hour in any other matter beside.
Further, in reading the scripture, I would you should join some books of the Old and some of the New Testament together, as Genesis and one of the evangelists, Exodus with another, and so forth; ever ending such books as you begin (as the time will suffer). For it shall greatly comfort you to hear that harmony and well-tuned song of the Holy Spirit speaking in our fathers from the beginning. It shall confirm you in these dangerous and perilous days to behold the face of Christ Jesus, and his loving spouse and Church from Abel to himself, and from himself to this day in all ages to be one. Be frequent in the prophets and in the epistles of St. Paul, for the multitude of matters most comfortably contained therein, require exercise and good memory.
Like as your assemblies ought to begin with confession and invocation of God's Holy Spirit, so would I that they were finished with thanksgiving and common prayers for princes, rulers, and magistrates; for the liberty and free passage of Christ's evangel; for the comfort and deliverance of our afflicted brethren in all places now persecuted, but most cruelly within the realm of France and England; and for such other things as the Spirit of the Lord Jesus shall teach unto you to be profitable, either to yourselves, or to your brethren wheresoever they are.
If thus (or better) I shall hear that you exercise yourselves, dear brethren, then I will praise God for your great obedience, as for them that not only have received the word of grace with gladness, but that also, with care and diligence, do keep the same as a treasure and most precious jewel. And because I cannot expect you will do the contrary at the present, I will use no threatenings, for my good hope is, that you shall walk as the sons of light in the midst of this wicked generation; that you shall be as stars in the night season, who yet are not changed into darkness; that you shall be as wheat amongst the cockle, and yet, that you shall not change your nature which you have received by grace, through the fellowship and participation which we have with the Lord Jesus in his body and blood. And, finally, that you shall be of the number of the prudent virgins, daily renewing your lamps with oil, as they that patiently do abide the glorious appearance and coming of the Lord Jesus; whose omnipotent Spirit rule and instruct, illuminate and comfort your hearts and minds, in all assaults, now and ever. Amen.
The grace of the Lord Jesus rest with you.
Remember my weakness in your daily prayers. The 7th of July 1556.
Your brother unfeigned,
In 1559, Knox returned to Scotland, to take a leading role in the national reformation which followed. Eventually, the regular structures of church government were adopted in Scotland, with the result that the Scottish churches possessed ruling elders, sessions, presbyteries, and the general assembly. Still, these ecclesiastical institutions did not spring up overnight, ex nihilo, the moment that Knox put his foot upon the shore at Leith. Knox and the Reformed ministers labored many years to establish the more mature institutions of biblical church polity. Much of the groundwork had been laid during the earlier days, when the faithful worshipped in homes, without the benefit of a regular ministry. No one should discount the importance of a regular ministry; but neither should they despise "the day of small beginnings," which may lead to greater things (cf. Zech. 4:10; Hag. 2:3).
As the work of reformation commenced in Scotland, the Scots adopted the Confession of 1560. This document was written by John Knox and five other ministers. These same men also composed the First Book of Discipline; this book was drafted as a blueprint to transform the Scottish church and nation into a society which would be reformed in manners, as well as doctrine.
The First Book of Discipline contains an extensive treatment of church polity. The principles of ecclesiastical government found in the First Book reflect the extraordinary state of the Scottish church, which was then in a formative period. Because of the irregular state of the church at the outset of the Reformation, the Scottish church temporarily used superintendents, readers, and exhorters to supplement the regular ministry. Sometimes adjacent congregations were ruled by a joint session, composed of elders from a plurality of congregations.
By 1578, the Scottish church had reached a more mature state, possessing a regular ministry and an ordinary system of church courts. Under the leadership of Andrew Melville, the Scots then produced the Second Book of Discipline, which has a more restricted focus than the First. The Second Book treats matters of church polity applicable to an established and reformed church; and it gives considerable attention to the relationship between church and state.
The distinctive perspectives and characteristics of the First and Second Books might not be readily apparent to modern readers; but these distinctives were not overlooked by David Calderwood, in his Preface to the 1621 edition of the First and Second Books of Discipline. It is necessary, notes Calderwood, "to consider the different conditions of the kirk in her infancy, in her growing, and in her ripe age, and accordingly to accommodate the discipline to practice, as the condition of the time permitted or required, and wisely to distinguish betwixt the kirk's purpose and intention in every particular, and their possibility to perform and practice, as circumstances concurred, or were contrary. "
It is time now to summarize and apply some of the principles of scriptural polity which apply to extraordinary times, and to churches in an unsettled or forming condition.
1. First, we must recognize that there are times when it is a scriptural duty for persons to separate from existing communions which profess to be churches. "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven ... a time to break down, and a time to build" (Eccl. 3:1,3).
As James Bannerman notes, "It were impossible, indeed, to deny that there may be real and sufficient ground for separation from some particular local Church. That a particular Church may itself apostatize from the faith, or be guilty of imposing upon its members terms of communion, to comply with which would be sin, there cannot be a doubt; and in such a case separation becomes a duty to be discharged, and not an offence to be avoided. But in separating in such circumstances from the Church, the schism lies not with the parties who separate, but with the Church that compels and causes the separation."
2. Once a person has recognized the duty to separate from a corrupt communion, he should attempt to join with others of like faith and practice, and seek to establish a more regular congregation. The seceding party should then make a concerted effort, by the grace of God, to build up the regular institutions of church government.
William Cunningham summarizes the teaching of the Protestant Reformers in this manner:
First, that the absence of a regular ministry, appointed in the ordinary prescribed way, or even the absence of a ministry altogether for a time, is not necessarily, and in all circumstances, a sufficient proof of itself that a society of professing Christians is not a church of Christ: and secondly, that any company of faithful or believing men is entitled to a ministry, since Christ has given the ministry to the church; and if they are so placed in providence that they cannot have a ministry in the ordinary, regular, prescribed way, are entitled to make a ministry for themselves, and that ministry, though not a regular, is a valid one.
On these grounds, the Reformers in general contended that any body of Christians who had come, from reading or hearing the word of God, to be convinced of the sinfulness of remaining in the communion of the Church of Rome, were not only entitled but bound to leave it; that they were warranted to form themselves into a distinct society for the worship of God, and the enjoyment of His ordinances; and that if it was impracticable for them, in the circumstances in which they were in providence placed, to get a minister in the ordinary regular way i.e., one approven and set apart by persons already in the office of the ministry they were entitled, since they were a church, and since Christ had given the ministry to the church, to appoint ministers for themselves, if there was any one among them possessed of the scriptural qualifications, to wait upon his ministry, and to receive the sacraments at his hands, without any apprehension of invalidity. This was the doctrine of the Reformers. I am persuaded that it is in accordance with the views of the church and the ministry, and of their relation to each other, given us in Scripture; and I believe it is implied in, and was intended in substance to be expressed by, the declaration of the Confession, that Christ has given the ministry , as well as the oracles and the ordinances, to the Church.
John Murray makes comments of a similar import:
The importance of the local congregation is therefore paramount and it is in the local congregation that the presbyterian principle must first be exemplified. If it is not preserved and practised at this point, it is not in operation at all. If and when it happens that a particular congregation of God's people is not able, for geographical isolation, or for reasons of loyalty to the whole counsel of God, to establish a broader fellowship with other congregations of like faith and practice, that congregation must not consider itself pre-empted from discharging all the rights and prerogatives, as well as duties, of presbytery. In the New Testament, the presbuterion is simply the elders gathered together for the discharge of those functions of government devolving upon them, and no prerogative of presbytery is denied them when acting in that capacity. The presbyterian principle begins at the level of the particular flock or congregation, and if, for good reasons, it does not extend further than one congregation, we are not to deem it unpresbyterian. To be concrete, to that local presbytery belong all the functions that Christ has accorded to presbytery.
In the absence of a regular, bona fide presbytery, men are still not at liberty to take unto themselves ministerial callings upon their own private impulses. The French Confession of Faith (1559) sets forth the Reformed understanding of principles which apply to a lawful calling in extraordinary times. Article 31 states: "We believe that no person should undertake to govern the Church upon his own authority, but that this should be derived from election, as far as it is possible, and as God will permit. And we make this exception, especially, because sometimes, and even in our own days, when the state of the Church has been interrupted, it has been necessary for God to raise men in an extraordinary manner to restore the Church which was in ruin and desolation. But, notwithstanding, we believe that this rule must always be binding: that all pastors, overseers, and deacons should have evidence of being called to their office."
This last principle was precisely what was observed in the case of John Knox. The evidence of his ministerial gifts became the basis of the congregational call which, in turn, provided the outward ratification of his heavenly calling.
Of course, that does not mean that Knox was free from detractors. It was a favorite ploy of the Papists to cast aspersions upon the calling of Protestant ministers as lacking a proper ordination. In a dispute with a Romish abbot, Knox responded:
In our consciences we know, and he himself will bear us record, that we are not sent by that Roman Antichrist, whom he calls the Pope, nor yet from his carnal cardinals, nor dumb-horned bishops. And therefore we rejoice, being assured that, as we are not sent by Christ's manifest enemy in the earth, so are we sent by Jesus Christ himself, and that such order as God has ever kept from the beginning, when public corruption entered in the Church by sleuth, and impiety of such as of duty ought to have fed the flock, and to have retained the people under obedience to God, as well in religion as in life and manners.
The order of God (I say) has been, in such public corruptions, to raise up simple and obscure men in the beginning of their vocation, unknown to the world to rebuke the manifest defection of the people from God, to convict the pastors of their former negligence, sleuth, and idolatry, and to pronounce them unworthy of their offices. For so was Elijah sent in the days of Ahab; Jeremiah in the time of corruption, under Jehoiakim and Zedekiah; Amos under Jeroboam; and the rest of the prophets, every one in their own time.
And after the same order has God raised up in these our days, such men as my lord [the abbot] and his faction term heretics, schismatics, Zwinglians, Lutherans, Ocolempadians, and Calvinists: to prove the Pope to be Antichrist, his whole glory in the earth to be altogether repugnant to the condition of Christ's true ministers; the mass to be idolatry, and a bastard service of God, yea, more corrupted than ever was the sacrifice in the days of the prophets, when yet they affirmed them to be abominable before God; purgatory to be nothing but a pickpurse [pickpocket]; the defense of man's free will, to do good and avoid evil, to be the damned heresy of Pelagius; the forbidding of marriage to any estate of men or women to be the doctrine of devils; and the forbidding of meat, for conscience sake, to proceed from the same fountain; the erecting of images in churches, and in public places of assemblies, to be against the expressed commandment of God; prayer for the dead, and unto saints, to be work done without faith, and therefore to be sin.
Briefly, God has raised up men in these our days so to discover the turpitude and filthiness of that Babylonian harlot, that her very golden cup, in the which her fornication was hid before, is become abominable to all such as trust for the everlasting life. And they have, further, set so vehement a fire in the very ground of her glory, that is, in her usurped authority, that she and it are both like to burn to their uttermost confusion.
But my lord perchance requires miracles to prove our lawful vocation. I answer, that a truth by itself, without miracles, has sufficient strength to prove the lawful voca tion of the teachers thereof; but miracles destitute of truth have efficacy to deceive, but never to bring to God.
If they [the Papists] will study to keep themselves in credit and estimation, let them never call our vocation in doubt, for we incontinent [unrestrained] will object to them, that from the most to the least, there is none amongst them lawfully called to serve within the Church of God; but all commit simony, all are heretics, all receive the spirit of lies, and the leprosy of Gehazi.
John Calvin, writing on The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church (1547), says essentially the same thing:
It is true, indeed, that in a well ordered Church none are to be admitted to the office of teaching but those who have been called by the ordinary pastors. But what is this to the Papacy unless the power of Christ be transferred to Antichrist? The Apostles gave endeavor, as was meet, to propagate the Church to posterity. For this purpose they ordained pastors elected by the suffrages of the people. Afterwards, along with purity of doctrine, the just method of electing became obsolete. Will none now be a proper minister of Christ save he who has crept in by corruption?
...Shall none, then, be able to come forward, except under wicked and detestable auspices, to advance the kingdom of Christ? Nay, they say how much soever all things may have gone to wreck, let no man who is not called interfere. I have already observed that wherever the state of the Church is safe, or at least tolerable, an ordinary call is requisite. But is a law, therefore, laid upon God, and may not he extraordinarily, by his Spirit, raise up prophets and other ministers to restore his fallen and ruined Church?
...That those who at this time have held forth a torch to us, to enable us, after long wandering, to return to the way, were holy prophets of God, is attested by the noble and truly divine specimen which they gave of their ministry. They never would have been called to do this service to the Church by the wolves who were burning with rage to destroy and devour it. Therefore, to cure an incurable evil, especially when the usual remedies failed, God himself behoved to bring assistance by putting forth his own hand. Now, the same wolves that beset the sheepfold complain that we have entered without their authority, and clamor against us as the disturbers of order, because, instead of waiting for a command from them, each, as was meet, has studied to do his utmost in succouring the poor sheep. But ever since matters were brought to a somewhat better state by our labors, the laying on of hands is observed with greater sanctity amongst us than in any part of the Papacy.
Later Presbyterian writers treat the ministerial call and ordination in a similar manner. Writing on the subject of ordination, George Gillespie draws a distinction between the rules which apply to established churches, and those peculiar principles which apply in extraordinary seasons: "There may be an extraordinary calling from God where religion is not yet planted, nor churches yet constituted: it is altogether another case in a constituted reformed or reforming church. I add, with Peter Martyr, that even those persons who set about the work of the ministry extraordinarily, or among infidels, if they can come at any who may ordain them in the usual and right way, they ought not to neglect the seeking of ordination."
In another place, Gillespie writes:
We plainly say, that in extraordinary cases, when ordination cannot be had, and when there are none who have commission and authority from Christ to ordain, then and there, an inward call from God, enlarging the heart, stirring up, and assisting with the good-will and consent of a people whom God makes willing, can make a minister authorized to ministerial acts. Suppose this to have been the case at the first coming out from Popery, yet here was a seed for more churches and more ministers. At the first plantation of churches ordination may be wanting without making void the ministry, because ordination cannot be had; but in constituted churches, the want of ordination doth make a minister, no minister."
With this historical background, we gain a better understanding of what the French Confession of 1559 means, when it states that "when the state of the Church has been interrupted, it has been necessary for God to raise men in an extraordinary manner to restore the Church which was in ruin and desolation" (article 31). At the very least, we are to understand that there will be times when a regular calling, presbyterial examination, and ordination will not be possible. In this setting, God will raise up spokesmen for the truth, who will minister to true believers, who have been delivered from the bondage of sin and corrupt ecclesiastical institutions. Nevertheless, ministers will not run merely at their own impulse; but they will give evidence of their heavenly calling by fulfilling the scriptural requirements and functions of true pastors. As the Lord blesses their labors in the gospel, their calling will be confirmed by the voice of the people, among whom they minister.
Regardless of whether a man's calling is ordinary or extraordinary, he will be a man who exhibits the biblical qualifications for ministerial office: a man of sound doctrine, possessed with godly zeal, strong personal piety, good preaching skills, and orderly family government (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). We should look for these distinguishing traits which will always mark men with a heavenly calling; for those with a genuine calling are preeminent in their labors for the gospel.
We now move to some closing observations, seeking to apply the appropriate principles of church government to our own times. And here we must be cautious; but we must also be honest. We must be like the children of Issachar, "which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do" (1 Chron. 12:32).
1. We would submit to you that today, in the United States, we live in an extraordinary situation, because the Church is in an unsettled state. Gross ignorance of biblical truth abounds at every hand. The religious state of the nation is, in many respects, as desperate as medieval Europe, before the Reformation took root. There is no national presbyterian church in America which seriously adheres to the original version of the Westminster Standards even among "conservative" presbyterian denominations. The mainline churches have openly spurned scriptural authority, making it easy to classify them as synagogues of Satan. There is a multiplication of cults, sects, and radical assemblies such as the Charismatics on all sides. Persons who sincerely seek to uphold biblical truth, and endeavor to have the word applied in practice, especially in the life of local churches corporately, are harassed and slandered.
Further, families which adhere to the Reformed faith are scattered throughout the country, in small numbers, sometimes isolated by hundreds of miles from other families who share their convictions. As the Lord has turned the hearts of our families to the truth, we discover that we are unable to find any tolerable church connections near our homes. Thus, we are compelled to consider the principles of church polity which apply to the churches in extraordinary times, because we live in an unsettled ecclesiastical situation.
2. In our situation, separation from wickedness, and separation from ungodly church connections, are essential steps toward biblical reformation. In our own era of ecclesiastical anarchy, many would-be Presbyterians have a special difficulty in dealing with the propriety of separation. Some professing Presbyterians were at one time, in their past, involved with churches which prided themselves upon independency. Thus, they are extremely reluctant to entertain ideas which smack of independency. Their caution is well-advised, unless it drives them to a stubborn and unequal yoke in their denominational affiliation.
For example, within "conservative" presbyterian churches, such as the P.C.A., one may find a strange admixture of Romish notions of worship, Pelagian methods of evangelism, horrendous doctrinal aberrations, and de facto prelacy within the bureaucracy of their church government. To join such an ecclesiastical union is to countenance manifest apostasy; and to adopt their terms of communion, which are altogether unlawful. For those who are already members, and who are awakened by the truth, "in such a case, separation becomes a duty to be discharged, and not an offense to be avoided." For genuine Christians to remain in such an unequal yoke is positively sinful, and dangerous to their souls (and the spiritual welfare of their families). And when men linger in such ungodly ecclesiastical alliances, it is additionally criminal for them to hurl accusations of schism upon those who have seceded for just cause.
Quite frankly, we are among those who have separated from corrupt communions. With Knox we declare: "If they will still cry that we are schismatics and apostates, because we refuse to defile ourselves with their abominations, we cannot but appeal from their corrupt sentence to the uncorrupt Judge, of whose favors we are assuredly persuaded in that point; because he has said, 'Follow not the multitude in evil doing' " [Ex. 23:2]. Similarly, it is the office of the sheep to refuse the leadership of men who reveal themselves to be hirelings; for the Lord's sheep will not follow a stranger, "but will flee from him" (John 10:5); thieves and robbers often appear, but the sheep will not hear them (John 10:8).
3. Heads of households have a special responsibility to maintain true religion in their families. As Knox declares: "Within your houses, I say, in some cases you are bishops and kings; your wife, children, servants, and family are your bishopric and charge. Of you it shall be required how carefully and diligently you have always instructed them in God's true knowledge, how you have studied to plant virtue in them, and [to] repress vice." When the state of the church sinks to its lowest point in a nation, it us incumbent upon heads of homes to see that true religion is transmitted to posterity. Even if we have no one else to join us in worship, let us remain faithful in our own households. Let us imitate Abraham, the father of all the faithful, of whom the Lord said, "I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Gen. 18:19).
4. Those who secede from apostate churches, must seek to associate with like-minded Chris tians. In short, we must labor to establish Reformed churches which will be faithful to the word of God. If there are others of like faith and practice nearby, we should band together with them to form a local congregation even if we are small in number, and forced to meet in homes. We should seek to identify persons in other parts of the country who share our vision to establish a Reformed church which will be national in scope. We should look for ways to encourage one another, to work together, and to support one another's needs when we have it in our ability to do so. Indeed, our contacts should not be simply within our own national borders. We should also cultivate ties with Reformed churches abroad.
5. As we have opportunity to meet for worship with other families of like faith, we should uphold the normal principles of Presbyterian polity, as far as we are able, without compromise. We may conduct our meetings according to the pious advice of Knox directed to an earlier generation in similar circumstances. We should pray together, sing psalms, read the scriptures, and read sermons from approved authors of the past. We can follow the general order of worship outlined in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. We may meet in homes, or in the open air, if need be; we can find historic precedents for both. Such practices were carried on by others in extraordinary circumstances as among the Waldenses, the Covenanters, and within frontier settlements where the people did not have access to a regular ministry.
6. Whenever possible, we should obtain the services of gospel ministers who have proven themselves orthodox and faithful. Visiting ministers, if they are truly in tune with historic Presbyterianism, will certainly assist us when it is within their power to do so. Nevertheless, if we are without a regular ministry, we must be careful not to become indiscriminate regarding those preachers whom we will hear. Knox summons us to test those who would labor among us in the things of God: "Satan has sent forth his messengers almost in all quarters to disperse and sow abroad these his pestilent opinions; and therefore in the bowels of Christ Jesus, I exhort you to try the spirits of such as shall come to you, Suffer no man without trial and examination to take upon him the office of a preacher, neither to travel among the simple sheep of Christ Jesus, assembling them in privy conventions. For if every man shall enter at his own appetite in the vineyard of the Lord, without just trial of his life, conversation, and condition as some, more to serve their own bellies than the Lord Jesus, will offer their labors so no doubt Satan shall have his other supporters by whom he purposes to destroy the very plantation of our heavenly Father. And therefore my prayer is and shall be unto our God, that in this behalf you be circumspect, prudent, and wary." Knox penned these words prior to his return to Scotland, before their were any presbyteries erected in Scotland; thus the force of these remarks must have been directed to the heads of households who were seeking to maintain the truth in a difficult situation. We have a continuing responsibility to discern between true and counterfeit ministers of the gospel.
7. Eventually, if our labors prosper in a particular location, we will hope to secure a regular minister of the gospel. We might look for someone who has been ordained abroad although, from what I have heard, most foreign churches which are faithful suffer from a shortage of qualified ministers themselves. Or we may look for a pastor who has with drawn from an apostate church. We might even recognize a gifted man who has been raised up from within our own small local remnant. In any case, because of our isolation, we have no presbytery of our own to conduct a regular ministerial examination. There fore, we might see if the man can be examined by a presbytery belonging to a faithful church abroad. At the very least, he should be evaluated by the heads of households of our own assembly or assemblies, if we have established a network of contacts in other places. In no case should a man be called to a regular position of ministry, without prior consent of the people, as represented by the heads of households in the locality where he will minister.
8. Where there are ministers of the gospel who perceive the truths of the gospel and the exigencies of our times, they should do everything within their power to foster the building of a church that is truly Reformed, truly national, and fully Presbyterian. Faithful ministers (and ministerial candidates) will not knowingly seek the approbation of corrupt presbyteries. To do so merely to "get a church" (or an ordination) is to exhibit the mercenary spirit of those hirelings who seek entrance into the true sheepfold by "climbing up some other way" (cf. John 10:1,13); it is to obtain permission from wolves and hirelings to gain access to the sheepfold.
Oh! that ministers in our day could join with Knox, when he exclaims: "We rejoice, being assured that ... we are not sent by Christ's manifest enemy in the earth." Yet, in our own day, sadly, many men go cap-in-hand to presbyteries which they know to be corrupt, seeking approval from these pretending church courts for their ministry. Honestly now, what is such presbyterial approval worth? Is this not a solemn mockery of the very Presbyterian principles we profess to uphold? Is it not greatly dishonest? What good things can we expect from the ministry of a man who commences his career with such a patent act of dissimulation? Is such patronizing, man-fearing conduct honoring to Christ? No, the Church of the Lord Jesus can do quite well without adding any more names to the list of sycophants that fill the rolls of these pretending presbyteries.
A faithful shepherd will lead the sheep to safe pasture, giving his life, if necessary, to insure the safety of the sheep (John 10:9,11). When pastors and elders become convinced of the desperate state of the churches in our own day, they should take the lead; their sacred calling demands that they promptly direct their congregations away from corrupt denominational ties, to form biblical connections of church government. In some cases this will mean that entire congregations should secede from their apostate denominations, and join with other churches of like faith and practice. To leave the sheep in danger, under the jurisdiction of a corrupt presbytery, is gross negligence on the part of those who watch over souls "as they that must give account" (Heb. 13:17).
9. Christians in a forming church or extraordinary circumstances are still entitled to the lawful administration of the sacraments. Doubtless, some baptisms may be delayed; and the observance of the Lord's Supper may be less frequent than is desirable. But the ordinances should not be withheld on account of the irregularity of the circumstances. Faithful preachers may administer the sacraments to those who receive their ministry and whose lives are free from scandal. As we have seen, the sacraments may be administered properly within home meetings, provided there is a plurality of families to impart a public character to the meetings.
10. For all of us, in whatever station we are placed in life, we should follow the command of our Savior: "Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth laborers into his harvest" (Luke 10:2). Furthermore, we must entreat the Lord, that "the church [would be] furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate: that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted."
It is the Lord who will build his Church. And in due season, he will adorn her with "beautiful garments," and there will no more come into her the uncircumcised and the unclean (Isa. 52:1).
1. Westminster Larger Catechism # 191.
2. Presbyterian Government (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1988), p. 11.
3. See Biblical Church Government by Kevin Reed (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publi cations, 1983).
4. The Church of Christ, (1869; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), I:59.
5. See J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965), pp. xvii-xviii.
6. Thomas M'Crie, The Unity of the Church (1821; rpt. Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1989), extracts from pp. 94-97.
7. For an account of Knox's call to the ministry, see Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland, in Works, I:185-88.
8. Works, I:201-02.
9. On separation from Rome, see A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry (1550); A Godly Letter of Warning, or Admonition to the Faithful in London, Newcastle, and Berwick (1554); A Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God's Truth in England (1554). On Knox's view of the Anabaptists, see "Letters to His Brethren, and Lords Professing the Truth in Scotland," Works, IV:261-75; An Answer to the Cavillations Written by an Anabaptist, and Adversary to God's Eternal Predestination (1560), in Works, Vol. V.
10. M'Crie, Life of Knox (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication), p. 119.
11. P. Hume Brown, John Knox (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1895), I:306-07.
12. W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God (New York: Scribners, 1974), p. 138.
13. P. Hume Brown, John Knox, I:323.
14. Works, IV:136-40.
15. "In 1560 there were only six ministers at the [General] Assembly, and only twelve in all Scotland. Seven years later there were 252 ministers, and they were assisted by 154 exhorters and 467 readers." Cited by J. Marcellus Kik in Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1963), pp. 93-94.
16. David Calderwood, "Preface" to The First and Second Books of Discipline (1621; rpt. Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1993), p. 18.
17. The Church of Christ, I:48.
18. Historical Theology, I:30-31.
19. Collected Writings, II:348-349.
20. "This Confession was prepared by Calvin and his pupil De Chandieu, revised and approved by a synod at Paris, 1559, delivered by Beza to Charles IX at Poissy, 1561, adopted by the Synod of La Rochelle, 1571 (hence also called the 'Confession of Rochelle'), and solemnly sanctioned by Henry IV." Schaff's Creeds of Christendom, III:356.
21. Works, VI:191-93.
22. Tracts, III:297-99.
23. A Treatise of Miscellany Questions, Chapter III, section 3. As regards ordination, it is also significant that Gillespie refused to seek ordination at the hands of prelates, choosing instead to wait for the restoration of genuine presbyterianism within the Scottish church. In the meantime, he engaged in a teaching ministry through writing, by composing A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies Obtruded upon the Church of Scotland (1637).
24. Miscellany, Chapter IV, Obj. 6. See Appendix B below.
25. The Church of Christ, I:48; cited on page 11 above.
26. Works, VI:493.
27. The Reformers frequently appealed to John 10 as a foundational passage respecting the doctrine of the Church. See Appendix A.
28. See pp. 7-8 above for the more complete citation.
29. Works, IV:271-72.
30. See above for the more complete context of these words. Also note Calvin's statement, above. The clear implication is that those who obtain their ordination under such "wicked and detestable auspices" are among those who "crept in by corruption."
31. Westminster Larger Catechism # 191.
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Go to Appendix A.