Government by Church Courts
In the previous chapter, general assertions are made concerning church government by elders. But more precisely, how do these officers function? This inquiry is answered by the role of elders within the courts of the church. Generally speaking, presbyterian government is rule by elders; but more specifically, it is government by the courts of the church. Church courts are composed of elders, sitting in their official capacity, who judge appropriate matters brought to them for resolution.
Some of the ordinary activities of elders include duties which they may fulfill as individuals. They are to provide day-to-day spiritual nurture for their people: giving encouragement or reproof where needed, visiting the afflicted, and providing positive leadership as shining examples of Christian character. Other functions are handled by elders when they are assembled in a joint capacity.
The corporate duties of the eldership include watching over the doctrine of the church, making certain their congregations are provided with sound gospel preaching, and guarding against the intrusion of false teachers. The elders must ensure that the sacraments are administered lawfully; and they handle cases of church discipline which fall under their jurisdiction.
The Local Church Court
The elders of a single congregation compose a church court which rules over that congregation. This court is frequently called the session. The session handles matters relative to its local church. For instance, the elders of a local congregation may be required to judge the case of a member accused of immorality. Or, they may be asked to resolve a serious dispute between two members of the congregation who cannot reconcile their differences. In other words, the elders function in a judicial capacity.
In most cases, prior to bringing a matter before the elders, other biblical prescriptions must first be followed. If a dispute erupts between two persons, the party who feels wronged should initially confront the other person privately. Proper steps for resolving a conflict are expressly given in Matthew 18:15-16. If these steps are followed, and the situation remains unresolved, then the appropriate recourse is to tell it unto the church. This last step is accomplished by bringing the matter before the elders, who comprise the governing body of the church.
Suppose a member of the local congregation accuses another member of defrauding him in a business transaction. What should be done? Often, the problem remains unresolved (and sin is not dealt with), or one party sues the other in a civil court. The apostle Paul describes such a scene in 1 Corinthians 6. He asks, Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? If a congregation is governed biblically, it will have elders qualified to judge matters with wisdom and justice.
In rendering a decision, the elders must proceed cautiously, with a high regard for biblical principles of inquiry (Deut. 19:15-18; Prov. 18:17). They must investigate diligently and get both sides of a story. In a dispute between two persons the elders will seek to achieve a reconciliation between the opposing parties.
At times, the elders may find it necessary to pronounce judgment against a person for immoral practices or heretical doctrine. In cases where the individual remains unrepentant, the resulting sentence may be excommunication (Matt. 18:17-18; 1 Cor. 5:11-13).
Higher Church Courts
Sometimes problems arise which touch more than a single congregation. Presbyterianism provides an affirmative response to these problems through a system of rising church courts. There are many matters which cannot be settled adequately through the action of a single church; widespread doctrinal controversy is one of these matters. A doctrinal dispute formed the occasion of a biblical example that illustrates how presbyterianism functions in such a case.
In Acts 15, we are informed that certain men came to Antioch and taught, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved (Acts 15:1). A dispute resulted, and the church at Antioch realized that this was an issue of more than passing interest to a single congregation. An assembly convened in Jerusalem, where the apostles and elders came together for to consider this matter (Acts 15:6). The conflict was discussed, resolved, and authoritative decrees (Acts 16:4) were issued by the council.
This event is quite important because it shows the necessity of a wider court composed of elders from more than a single congregation. The higher court above the session is usually called a presbytery.
Another important aspect of the Jerusalem council is that, although the apostles were present, they did not govern apart from the other elders of the church. Had the apostles chosen to issue an apostolic pronouncement, who would doubt the matter to be settled? Yet, even the apostles submitted to the calling of this church court, as if to demonstrate the transition between the apostolic era and the normative government of the church.
A third feature of the courts action comes from the actual decision given by the apostles and elders. The decrees formulated in Jerusalem constitute a doctrinal standard for the churches at large. This doctrinal formulation becomes a visible expression of unity for the churches, and it possesses governing authority in the congregations. More will be said about this point in the next chapter.
Now, think back for a moment to the earlier example of the dispute between two church members, when one man accuses another of defrauding him in business. If they belong to the same congregation, their dispute may be adjudicated by the local elders the session of that local church. But suppose the men are from different congregations. What then? Disputes between members of different congregations are not uncommon. If the two churches are independent, there is no connection between them, and no stated method of resolution. Often problems like this are allowed to go unresolved. The question raised by this example is merely an extension of Pauls query in 1 Corinthians 6:5. In this case, the question might be phrased, Is there no one able to judge between these brethren? Presbyterians can answer the question affirmatively through its system of courts.
In a presbyterian system, the churches recognize they are bound together under a common government. Therefore, a wronged member of one church may bring his complaint respecting another individual to the session of the accused brother. Because the two men are under a common ecclesiastical government, the session must listen to the grievance and seek a scriptural resolution.
If the local session is unable to handle the case in a satisfactory manner, it may be referred to a higher court. This referral may occur at the request of a session, or on the basis of an appeal by one of the parties in a case.
As in all systems run by fallible men, mistakes will sometimes be made. In an independent church, a person who is maligned on the local level has no place to appeal for ecclesiastical justice. But in a presbyterian system, an appeals process exists to provide greater insurance for a just resolution.
Other cases may arise which are impossible to resolve at a local level, as when a problem occurs between two congregations. Or suppose a dispute occurs among the elders in a church which has only three elders. In such cases, the presbytery offers a regular and orderly means of holding a fair trial.
The foregoing examples point to another very important principle of presbyterian polity. When the courts of the church convene, they function judicially. They are courts; they are not ecclesiastical congresses assembled to enact churchly legislation. Their function is to adjudicate matters based upon biblical law. As judges, the elders are not free to decide cases according to personal whim or the feelings of a moment. Rather, the elders must render judgment according to the principles of Gods word. This is precisely what the apostles and elders did in Acts 15. Based upon Gods written word in Amos 9:11-12 (cited in Acts 15:16-17), the heretical doctrine of the Judaizers is repudiated. The decrees of the assembly are derived from the scriptures.
Unfortunately, the judicial focus of the church courts has been progressively lost in this century, even among the more conservative Presbyterian denominations. When the courts convene, they handle very little judicial business. For example, the general assemblies tend to resemble annual business conferences or political conventions. Attendees are subjected to corrupt worship, wranglings over parliamentary procedure, and bureaucratic reports and public relations ploys by various denominational committees. Members of the assembly may vote on non-binding resolutions pertaining to current political and social issues, but legitimate judicial business is farmed out to obscure committees. Such ecclesiastical assemblies utterly fail to fulfill the God-given role of church courts ministerially to determine controversies to receive complaints of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same.
One other item within the jurisdiction of the church courts is the examination of pastors and other officers in the church. The courts judge the credentials of men who seek to be leaders in the church. For example, the apostle Paul speaks with approval of Timothys ministerial gift, which was made manifest by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14). Conversely, Paul warns the elders of savage wolves (Acts 20:29-30) who seek to pervert things in the church; the ecclesiastical courts are designed to protect the church against such intruders.
The need for ministerial examinations is crucial. Frequently, men assume to themselves spiritual titles such as evangelist and pastor or set up their own independent ministries. They commence these roles without answering to any authority within the church, adopting a presumptuous approach which is contrary to the biblical pattern for ministry. Even the apostle Paul submitted to the governmental authority of the church when, prior to his missionary journeys, he was set apart to the task by the church, through the laying on of hands. When Paul was sent forth by the Holy Spirit, he was also sent by the church (Acts 13:3-4). Pauls example illustrates that even the supernatural leading of the Spirit works in harmony with the operations of the church.
Ministerial trials are exceedingly important. They are a safeguard to protect congregations from false shepherds. The Scottish Reformer John Knox provides an appropriate warning in this regard:
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 unto you. Suffer no man without trial and examination to take upon him the office of a preacher, neither to travel amongst 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, doctrine, and condition as some, more to serve their own bellies than the Lord Jesus, will offer their labors so no doubt shall Satan have his other supporters by whom he purposes to destroy the very plantation of our heavenly Father.
A few concluding remarks about church courts are in order. In many Presbyterian denominations, there are higher courts above the presbytery. These higher courts may go by the name of the synod or the General Assembly. Where they do exist, these higher courts should function mainly as courts of appeal to remedy grievances rising up from the presbyteries. The higher courts should not be viewed as sanctified bureaucracies which may impose arbitrary restrictions upon the presbyteries. Like the lower courts, the higher courts exist to adjudicate matters brought before them. They have no legitimate legislative or bureaucratic power. When the higher courts function properly (to handle appeals), the bulk of the churchs affairs are handled by the lower courts.
In the United States, the presbyteries (or higher courts) are frequently composed of elders from churches in a given state or region. The concept of the regional church seems to be reflected in the apostle Pauls salutation to the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2; cf. Acts 16:6). Galatia was a particular territory in the Roman Empire. In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul addresses a large number of separate congregations and gives directives common to them all. Based upon a similar line of thinking, Presbyterian denominations usually organize according to geographical regions which allow for government and cooperation among churches sharing many common interests.
In the days of Colonial America, when travel was difficult, and in places where Presbyterian churches were numerous, a presbytery might cover a smaller area such as the Presbytery of Philadelphia. In the present day, however it is not unusual to find a presbytery constructed from a larger geographical area. Hence, there may be a Presbytery of Texas, or a Presbytery of the Northwest.
During the Scottish Reformation, many responsibilities, of necessity, devolved upon the higher courts of the church. The Church of Scotland adopted a book of polity, subsequently known as The First Book of Discipline. The book did not mandate a centralized system of polity; it envisioned numerous activities at the local level. Yet, because many congregations were without regular pastors and sessions, provisions had to be made for the spiritual needs of the people. Itinerate preachers (called superintendents), joint sessions, and regional oversight of churches became commonplace. These extraordinary measures were not permanent; in ordinary seasons, most of these functions reverted to local judicatories.
During this formative period of Scottish presbyterianism, the General Assembly regularly convened twice a year. The circumstances produced a somewhat centralized structure which, although suited to the Scottish Reformation, may not be appropriate in other nations at all times. Scotland is geographically a small country. It would be a mistake, therefore, to conclude that all the particulars of the Scottish model can be (or should be) exported to other nations, when the circumstances and geography are dissimilar.
This analysis does not relegate the subject of church government to the realm of relativism. There are many overarching principles of church polity which have been established by divine law. These precepts must be pursued in all times and in all places. In a fully organized church, the congregation will possess a solid group of church officers (deacons, elders, ministers of the word); it will be linked to other congregations in a graded system of ecclesiastical courts, where justice is the rule, and ministerial candidates are tested as to their qualifications for office; further, the sacraments and church discipline will be rightly administered. These are the central features of biblical polity. Some of the details may vary from one denomination to another. Nevertheless, wherever the essentials of the system are maintained, the government is still presbyterian.
Notes for Chapter 3
- In churches which developed out of the Continental Reformation, the court of the local church is called the consistory.
- In some Reformed churches, this higher court may be called the classis.
- Of this body the church, Christ alone, as before intimated, is the Head. He only has a right to give laws to his church, or to institute rights and ordinances for her observance. His will is the supreme guide of his professing people; his word their code of laws; and his glory their ultimate end. The authority of church officers is not original, but subordinate and delegated: that is, as they are his servants, and act under his commission, and in his name, they have power only to declare what the scriptures reveal as his will, and to pronounce sentence accordingly. If they attempt to establish any other terms of communion than those which his word warrants; or to undertake to exercise authority in a manner which he has not authorized, they incur guilt, and have no right to exact obedience.
And, as all the power of the church is derived, not from the civil government, but from Christ, the almighty King of Zion; and as it is purely spiritual in its nature and sanctions; so the power of the church officers is merely ministerial. They are, strictly, servants, who are to be governed, in all things, by the pleasure of their employer. They have only authority to announce what the Master has said, and to decide agreeably to that will which he has made known in his word. Like ambassadors at a foreign court, they cannot go one jot or tittle beyond their own instructions. Of course, they have no right to set up a law of their own. The Bible is the great statute-book of the body of which we speak; the only infallible rule of faith and practice. And nothing can be rightfully inculcated on the members of the church, as truth, or demanded of them, as duty, but that which is found in that great charter of the privileges as well as the obligations of Christians. Samuel Miller, The Ruling Elder, pp. 17, 25.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, 31:3.
- One of the curses of modern American religion is the proliferation of independent ministries, evangelistic associations, campus organizations, autonomous mission boards, independent seminaries, and other para-church organizations. Organizations are audaciously founded without having to answer to any authority within the church. Just like individuals, religious organizations have no special exemption from submitting to proper authority in the church.
- A Letter to His Brethren in Scotland, in The Works of John Knox (edited by David Laing; Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895), Vol. 4, pp. 271-72.
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Copyright ©1983, 1994 by Kevin Reed
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